On a summer day in 1826, the first photograph was created. French inventor Nicéphore Niépce brushed a light-sensitive solution of bitumen of Judea over a pewter plate, opened the lens to a camera obscura (camera being dark and obscura being room), and as light shined through its pinhole opening onto the plate, history was made. By day’s end, and after a chemical wash, the image projected by the light was burned into the plate and a new form of capturing images began its march into the world of art.
Photography, as the term’s Greek meaning suggests, has always been rooted in the idea of “drawing with light.” Yet this element of the art is fading with the rise of digital cameras—as light-sensitive film is replaced by electronic sensors.
A vision still exists, however, that photography as art doesn’t need to be locked into format, and that the future of painting with light may instead rest in the idea of removing photography from the frames and books where it has been enclosed; brought out from the darkroom and into the sunlight.
Yet, until recently, this vision was lost to an archived patent and a fading dream. And Jesse Genet, one of the founders of Lumi—pioneers of the new Lumityping process—was still a teenager when she set out to revive it.
Lumi is a Los Angeles-based workshop where a team of designers use “Inkodye” to burn photographs into everything from clothes and bags, to furniture and canvasses. They have a guiding wish to bring something new to photography—a new way of playing with light.
The chemical solution that allows this is Inkodye. The artist can paint it over just about any cloth, place a photo negative or a random object over it, and after leaving it in the sunlight for a while, the image will be etched into the object.
Genet came across the solution while researching alternative printing processes. “I was reading old books on imaging, old patents from the U.S. patent office, as well as old articles about dye techniques,” she said, via email. “I came across a reference to a ‘photosensitive dye’ and was extremely intrigued.”
“I immediately understood that this meant I could do true photographic imaging onto fabrics and apparel and that it might be fully washable,” she said. “The permanence and washability was the most exciting element, I was already aware of a variety of artistic techniques for making images (like transfers, etc.) that produced interesting results but simply wouldn’t hold up over time and usage.”
Although she found the formula early on, getting rights to use it would be an adventure in itself.
Genet’s stepfather has a large industrial building in her hometown of Detroit, Mich., and makes his living as an inventor, engineer, and scientist. “I grew up in a very scientific environment where any challenge seemed approachable,” she said. “The lessons I learned from him about perseverance while trying to achieve scientific objectives served as fuel to accomplish this project.”
After finding the patent for photosensitive dye, she set out to find its creator—a man who had already retired and had given up hope for his invention.
“The owner’s reaction was mostly one of confusion as to why I was so perseverance about the dye, from his perspective it was a failing product that never sold very well,” Genet said. “I had a vision for it that he couldn’t really relate to.”
Yet she didn’t give up. Being a teenager at the time, she notes, “It was difficult for him to take me seriously when I explained to him what I wanted to do with this dye formula,” yet, “after five years of persistence he began taking me more seriously.”
“Eventually I struck a business arrangement with him to take over the formula and apprentice with him to learn the chemistry,” she said. “Changes needed to be made to improve the formula as well as make it more of a sustainable product. The reformulation took about a year.”
The results speak for themselves. Lumi is now partnered with several companies, including PUMA, Junkfood Clothing, and Cisco Home. They’re also in the middle of an already successful campaign through fundraising website Kickstarter, and are selling kits of the formula along with a mobile app capable of making negatives of photographs for printing.
Genet said the formula is more than just a craft supply though. “It has powerful implications for the DIY crowd because of the low starting investment required to make custom prints, but there is also a role for it to play in commercial printing.”
“The Lumi process is the only process that uses light to print textiles as opposed to screens or digital printers,” she said, noting that this difference makes it “like a new toolbox” for fashion designers, furniture and interior designers, and professional printers.
The vision, however, is much more grand. Genet said, “We truly believe that it opens new tools for creativity and we feel that it can give way to a whole ecosystem of fledgling entrepreneurs who want to design, print, and sell products but can’t afford the investments necessary to do custom screen printing runs.”